I have been investigating the idea of using semantic techniques and technologies to enhance plays, along with the Montreal Semantic Web meetup group. There have been far fewer Semantic Web projects for the humanities than the sciences and even fewer that have examined the literary aspects of the theatre. Linked Open Data sets associated with the theatre are mostly bibliographic, library catalogue metadata, which treat plays from the point of view of simple objective properties of the artefact of a play, not its content: a play has an author, a publisher, a publication date, etc. Sometimes a nod towards the content is made by including genre, and there has been work on markup of scripts from a structural; perspective – acts, characters, etc. There are obvious and sound reasons for these kind of approaches, meeting bibliographic and structural use cases (e.g. “give me all the plays written by French authors between 1850-1890”; “give me the act, scene, and line references for all the speeches over ten lines long by a particular character”; “give me all the scenes in which more than three characters appear on stage at once”).

Modelling literary rather than physical connections

Once we started discussing at the meetups how we could model the content itself, especially in a qualitative manner, we quickly became embroiled in questions of whether or not we needed to create entire worldviews for each play and how we could relate things in the play to their real world counterparts.

One of the plays we are working on – Ocean Opera by Alex Gelfand (to be performed at the Montreal Fringe Festival this June) – included the Moon as a character. How and by what relationships could we link the Moon of the play to the Moon in the sky, and then how could we link it to other fictional and literary Moons?

Another play we analysed – Going Back Home by Rachel Jury – was a dramatization based on real people and historical events. It seemed obvious these should be linked to their real counterparts, and would a simple “is a fictional representation of” suffice? How should we relate depictions of historical events in the play to eyewitness accounts from the time or to newspaper reports?

Should we define the world view of each play? Would it matter when defining relationships if there were events in the play that were counterfactual or scientifically impossible?

How could we capture intertextuality and references to other plays? Should there be a differentiation between quotations and overt references by the author to other texts and less explicit allusions and shared cultural influences?

Artistic Use Cases

One of the most appealing aspects of this project to me is that we have no strict commercial or business requirements to meet. A starting point was the idea of a “literary search engine” that ranked relevance not according to information retrieval best practice, but under its own terms as art, or perhaps even defined its own “relevance within the world of the play”. In other words, we would be trying to produce results that were beautiful rather than results that best answered a query.

However, there are also a number of very practical use cases for modelling the literary world of a play, rather than just modelling a play as an object.

Querying within a play

Navigating within the text by answering such queries as ‘in which scenes do these two characters appear together’ answers one set of use cases. The BBC’s Mythology Engine was designed to help users find their way around within a lot of brands, series, and episodes, and characters and events were modelled as central.

An equivalent set of queries for literary aspects would be “how many scenes feature metaphors for anger and ambition” or “which monologues include references to Milton”.

Querying across many plays

If you extend such use cases across a body of plays, recommendation scenarios become possible. For example, “if you liked this play which frequently references Voltaire and includes nautical metaphors, then you might also like this play…” and there are clear commercial implications for the arts in terms of marketing and promotion, finding new audiences, and even in planning new work.

These kind of “metaphorical use cases” could also serve as a rich seam for generating interesting user journeys through a literary archive and as a way of promoting serendipitous discovery for students and researchers.

Storyline use cases

A lot of work that has been done at the BBC has been based around the concept of an ‘event’, and the relationship of events to storylines. This is particularly relevant for many practical and creative aspects of writing, compiling, broadcasting, archiving, and re-using content. For example, being able to distinguish the name of the journalist from the names of people who are mentioned within the story, and to distinguish between more and less significant people within a story according to whether they are mentioned as part of the main event or only in association with consequent or secondary events.

Literary and metaphorical use cases might take a similar approach but decompose the events in a story in terms of the emotional development of the characters.

Fictional worlds use cases

One of the ideas that I find the most appealing, but is the hardest to pin down, is the idea of modelling the internal ontological world of a work of fiction. In a fictional ontology, you can have relationships that make no sense in the ‘real’ world, so modelling them cannot rely on the kind of sense-testing and meeting of requirements that we use so much in commercial contexts.

In discussions, some people reacted very strongly against the idea of even attempting to model fictional worlds, which I found fascinating, while others immediately saw the idea as just another aspect of literary creation – an artistic endeavour in its own right.

There is an epistemological tangent in ontological thinking that goes into a debate about realism versus anti-realism that I haven’t fully got to grips with yet.

Where next?

I am at the very early stages of thinking through all this, and not sure where it will go, but am enjoying starting to gather a community of interest. If you would like to know more, I have written in more detail about it all on the project blog: http://www.semantictheatre.org.